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City Hall Hustle: What’s Next for the Council and Austin Energy?

I-Hwa Cheng for KUT News

It isn’t everyday that citizens stay late into the evening to tell the Austin City Council what a good job it’s doing. But that was the case last week.

“You’ve guys have won awards – dozens and dozens and dozens of awards – for being the most innovative, green, efficient, well-managed, best customer satisfaction utility in the state of Texas,” environmentalist Tom “Smitty” Smith with Public Citizen told the council. “And you want to change this?”

Smith was among those speaking in opposition of creating an independent board of trustees to oversee day-to-day operations at Austin Energy – currently the council’s job.  

The proposal would ultimately create a seven-member board, appointed by the council, to oversee the utility. Sponsors said the council would continue to set policy for Austin Energy – but that daily operations need more oversight.

“I don’t know how to keep it cheap,” said council member Bill Spelman, one of the proposal’s sponsors. “I am not an expert on the production of energy. I am not an expert on the operation of businesses – particularly in an industry as brutally competitive as the electric industry has become in Texas.”

Mayor Lee Leffingwell sounded a similar note, saying Austin Energy wasn't “on a sustainable course.” He argued an independent board could bolster Austin Energy’s finances and bond rating.

But the council wasn’t in complete agreement. Council member Laura Morrison said a review of just what powers would the new board would have would be the deciding factor in her vote: “That will for me, shed a whole lot of light on how this would work and how I can – if I can – actually support it in the end.”

That was a little more generous than council member Kathie Tovo, who couldn’t even bring herself to call the potential board independent. “I’m not going to call it an independent governing board,” she said, calling it “some sort of midlevel board that would make some level of decisions … outside of council approval” instead.  

All that said, the council unanimously approved a measure telling City Manager Marc Ott to flesh out the details. Expect the sparks to fly when he brings his recommendations back March 21.

Rounding Out the Agenda

In Fact Daily’s Mike Kanin keeps the juice flowing as the Hustle delves deeper into Austin Energy, including a public rebuke from the Public Utility Commission on the amount of money the utility transfers to the city’s General Fund.

Got the inside scoop on City Hall? Drop the Hustle a line a

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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